Giving Exposure to Learning-Disabled Artists: Researcher Andy Auld on his D4D PhD

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Andy Auld is a researcher working on a PhD in Disability and Cultural Studies at Bath Spa University. With a background in Cultural Studies and Gender Studies, his research focuses on the intersection of disability, mental health, art, class and capitalism. Natasha Sutton Williams caught up with Auld to discuss his work on the D4D project and explore how he is collaborating with learning disabled artists to generate both art and academic text through inclusive research methodologies.

colourful abstract artwork shared via a zoom window

Artwork by Hasel Hoosair shared via zoom

Auld’s PhD thesis considers how learning-disabled artists experience inclusive art spaces, and how these spaces affect the artists’ sense of self and community. “As someone who has volunteered for various inclusive arts organizations, I was struck by the unique atmosphere I found in these spaces,” says Auld. “I work at Community Focus, an all-inclusive arts centre in London where there is a really strong sense of community evident in the studio that goes beyond my experience of non-disabled art studios. This is because it knowingly doubles up as a studio space and a social space. Learning disabled people often have less opportunity to dictate how they spend their leisure time, so these spaces become significant because they have an opportunity to build an identity that goes beyond many of their other relationships, like with family or carers. These spaces are a place where learning disabled artists can build relationships as artists and peers, and build friendships which are based on mutual interests. These friendships are created through sharing creative practice together. I’m really drawn to the ways these inclusive arts organisations work, and how they do not define the people that go there as participants, patients or clients. They’re defined as artists, which is a really empowering label, whether or not those individuals choose to run with that label or not. Many of the artists that work in these spaces have gone on to achieve noteworthy success within the mainstream art world.”

colourful artwork depicting flowers,shared via a zoom window

Artwork by Corey Goodison shared via zoom

Through his PhD work, Auld is interrogating how academics conduct research about disabled people. “As someone without a learning disability, I had real questions about whether I’m the appropriate person to do this research,” states Auld. “There’s this phrase ‘nothing about us without us’ which came from the disability scene. There’s a strong history of disability advocacy that makes it clear Deaf people should be built into Deaf academia, and physically impaired people should be given more opportunities to write about their physical impairments. However, when it comes to learning disability, there’s this barrier of academia using either incredibly intricate language or using spaces that really aren’t accessible to learning disabled or neurodiverse people. I want to make sure my research is truly led by the artists themselves and is not just me observing them or interviewing them.”

So how has Auld been achieving this? “I’ve been doing a lot of work on inclusive research, methodologies and practices and thinking about how to make my research inclusive. The plan was to conduct a series of face-to-face workshops, however much had to be reconfigured in light of Covid-19. So we had to go through a learning process to adapt to working online with participants throughout the duration, exploring their changing arts practices in light of the pandemic. The artists have been involved in the planning of these workshops and the lines of inquiry we have been following.”

colourful artwork of a garden shared via a zoom window

Artwork by Corey Goodison shared via zoom

“I’ve also been thinking about the research outcomes. If I’m producing a thesis about learning-disabled art and its practice as a non-disabled person, I have a responsibility to ensure the research is important and meaningful to the artists, rather than as a piece of academic rhetoric that doesn’t have any impact on the lives of these artists. The thing I’m most excited about is that there will be two research outcomes. One will be the thesis, the other will be a Zine, due to be released in 2022. My plan is to develop the project with a hands on role for participants as part of an editorial board. I’m going to look for funding for it but also have a model in mind for a self-funded venture. The plan is to showcase the artists’ work, which will be edited by the artists and myself using easy read language. Together we’ll curate an exhibition and create a catalogue to go with it, ensuring the artists can take the lead on how we share the research and how we talk about it.”

An essential component of academia is to question how we categorize different types of knowledge and ask why one is valued over another. “Learning disabled people are underrepresented in academia hugely,” states Auld. “I hope this PhD and D4D research will contribute new understanding around disability and academia so that in the future learning disabled voices will be more readily heard by academics and considered more important, especially because these artists have the capacity to produce work that is affecting, political, and timely. The main thing is to make sure these artists’ voices are heard, that they have more exposure and that the importance of these artistic spaces is understood by society at large. I think it’s only really the people who have worked with these artists that understand how radical these spaces are. When I was studying in Glasgow, I was taught by an artist with Down syndrome how to strap canvases. This completely flies in the face of mainstream academia or mainstream arts organisations where there are really strict hierarchies. Instead, there’s this spirit of sharing knowledge and skills.”

Although Auld comes from a Cultural Studies background, social geography has always been a strong interest of his. This is a branch of social theory that unpacks the relationship between society and space. Much of the work Auld has undertaken concentrates on social space and community. These spaces include the punk, noise and avantgarde music scenes, safe spaces for queer people, and fat positive spaces.

Auld then went into Disability Studies to research impactful community spaces for disabled people. So why is he so fascinated by the notion of community? “My introduction to many political and ethical views I hold came from being involved in the DIY music scene,” says Auld. “By DIY, I mean music scenes that run parallel to mainstream music culture, where there is an expectation that everyone in the community will pitch in. So rather than have a booker organise events and bands, it’s all done by the attendees themselves. You choose a band you’d like to see, book the venue, cook the food and let them stay at your house. This community is based around worldwide networks of people who either directly or indirectly know one another, and are linked through a shared interest in a subculture.”

Now that Auld is near the end of his PhD work on the D4D project, what is the main takeaway he has gleaned? “The importance of the D4D project is illuminated to me every day due to the era we’re living in, the ongoing conservative austerity, and the neoliberal rhetoric about people being fit for work. The government is communicating a very clear message that the only people whose lives matter are those who are able bodied, non-neurodivergent people who can ‘contribute to the economy’ and can be ‘productive’ citizens. That’s really scary to live through. But the D4D project is the antithesis to that: the different strands of this research address what human life is worth, and what we’re all capable of. The project asks questions like how do we redefine what success is? One of the things I like about the other D4D strands is that they stand in stark opposition to the national ideology surrounding disability. It’s radical and political. It’s a call to action. There’s been a strong undercurrent of shared anger and passion. This work shows how vital it is to lift up, highlight and foreground the voices of disabled people. It’s the best project I’ve ever been involved in.”


D4D is an Arts and Humanities Research Council ‘Connected Communities’ funded research programme. D4D has been investigating the evolving ways in which we as disabled people express, perform, experience and practise ‘community’.

For more information on Andy Auld’s research as part of Performing Inclusion and Community please visit the project page on the website.